Pyramus and Thisbe
By Jennifer Kearley
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare is full of drama, love, magic, humor, and complex plot lines. This play is set in Athens, Greece and focuses on the upcoming marriage of Theseus, a duke, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Four young lovers, a group of six men called the mechanicals, and magical, manipulative fairies endure most of their journey in the forest of Athens. The main goal of the mechanicals is to put on a tragic play, Pyramus and Thisbe, for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Pyramus and Thisbe is significant because it reveals major influences on Shakespeare’s writing and is an essential element of the humor and success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare’s version of Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play, follows two young lovers whose families have forbidden them from being together. As a result, they must communicate through a hole in the wall between their neighboring homes. Pyramus and Thisbe eventually plan to meet up by moonlight at the tomb of Ninus, however, Thisbe arrives first and sees a lion. She flees in fear, leaving her cloak behind. The lion ruins her cloak, and when Pyramus arrives and sees the tattered garment, he assumes the lion has killed his lover. Pyramus commits suicide because of his grief, and when Thisbe returns to find her lover dead, she kills herself as well (Shakespeare 5.1.122-24). The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was made well known by the book Metamorphoses, which was written by a Roman poet, Ovid. He adapted this classical myth into his own version of a tragic love story in 8 AD (Keith 309). It is similar, although not identical, to Shakespeare’s version described above. Arthur Golding then translated this Latin text into English in 1567, although many scholars have argued that this translation is clumsy and does not capture the spirit of Ovid’s original version (Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays 3). A multitude of sources have influenced Shakespeare’s writing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, Ovid and Golding have most directly affected the plot and language of this particular play. In fact, Madeleine Forey states that, “Few characters remain untouched by Metamorphoses, and in many instances Golding’s translation appears to be Shakespeare’s immediate source” (322). Shakespeare borrows the language and even strings of phrases from Ovid’s original version and Golding’s English version of Metamorphoses (Muir, “Pyramus and Thisbe” 143). Kenneth Muir has pointed out that Golding uses the word “cranny” to describe the wall that separates Pyramus and Thisbe. Snout, one of the six mechanicals who plays the Wall, also uses “cranny” to describe himself. Shakespeare and Golding’s versions are the only two out of many that use this word. This similarity, along with many others, suggest that Golding was a direct influence on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Pyramus and Thisbe” 143). Pieces of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Metamorphoses can be found in other plotlines within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like Pyramus and Thisbe, Hermia and Lysander decide to flee Athens and run away into the forest at night because Hermia’s father, Egeus, disapproves of their relationship (Shakespeare 1.2.163-68). Both of these instances, as well as the mechanicals’ decision to act out the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, suggest that Ovid and Golding were two of the most influential sources on this play (Forey 322).
The mechanicals attempt to act out Ovid’s version of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they ultimately fail due to their ignorance and misinterpretation of it. It is this failure that has ironically contributed to the comedic success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Forey argues that Shakespeare’s characterization of the mechanicals was his way of mocking Golding’s rather clumsy and unsophisticated translation of Metamorphoses. She points out that Golding “naively” writes a preface for his translation of Metamorphoses which explains in detail that the characters in the story are not real. She parallels this with the rehearsals for Pyramus and Thisbe, where Bottom, one of the mechanicals, naively suggests that they create a prologue to explain that the lion and deaths of the lovers are not actually real so that they will not frighten their audience (326). Both the stage audience and real audience are more than likely aware of the differences between real life and play acting. According to Forey, this makes the mechanicals’ explanations “superfluous” and “heightens the comedy of the mechanicals’ efforts” (328). The mechanicals’ explanations therefore transform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from a tragedy into a comedy.
The mechanicals’ decision to leave out pertinent aspects of the original story of Pyramus and Thisbe from their performance also adds humor to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the earliest known version of this story, Pyramus and Thisbe “die tragically and are metamorphosed into the Cilician river and spring” (Keith 309). Ovid altered the original myth, but unlike the mechanicals, he still includes a transformation or metamorphosis in his version. In Ovid’s story and the subsequent translations, it is explained that Pyramus’ blood stains the white mulberry tree he is sitting under when he kills himself. When his lover, Thisbe, finds him, she asks the gods to let the mulberries remain the color of blood in remembrance of their love. Since then, mulberries transform to dark red when they fully ripen (Ovid 4.128-66). Although the mechanicals mention that a mulberry tree is present in their play, they fail to include the significance of it. The title of Ovid’s book, Metamorphoses, meant “to change in form; to turn into or to something else by supernatural means” (“metamorphose, v.” Oxford English Dictionary). Thus, the transformation of the color of the mulberry tree highlights one of the most obvious themes of this book and of the original myth. According to Forey, the onstage audience and real audience at the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed were likely aware of Ovid’s version of the story (329). Both audiences were thus likely aware of the mechanicals’ ignorance in regard to their omission. Along with the mechanicals’ superfluous explanations that parallel Golding’s translation, this omission possibly shows that Shakespeare was, “sharing with the more cultured of his audience the rather exclusive humour of self-conscious literary play” (Forey 329). Ironically, the decision to exclude the transformation of the mulberries ends up transforming the genre of Pyramus and Thisbe from a tragedy to a comedy. Although the metamorphosis of the mulberry tree is not included in the mechanicals’ performance, transformation is still a common theme throughout the rest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For example, Puck administers a love potion to Demetrius and Lysander that alters their desires and makes them fall in love with Helena rather than Hermia (Shakespeare 3.2.345-53). Also, the head of Bottom, one of the mechanicals, is metamorphosed into a donkey head. Titania, queen of the fairies, then falls in love with the changed Bottom as a result of the same love potion (Shakespeare 3.1.99-108). According to Mandy Busse, all of these mental and physical transformations further suggest that Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a major influence on the formation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1).
Overall, a large part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s comedic success can be attributed to the play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe. The origins of this story, as well as the mechanicals’ interpretation of it, reveal important influences on Shakespeare’s language, plot lines, and character development in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Busse, Mandy. “The play within the play: Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ and Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.” University of Erfurt , GRIN, 2013, p. 1, www.grin.com/en/e-book/75890/the-play-within-the-play-ovid-s-metamorphoses-and-shannnnnnkespeare-s-a-midsummer
Forey, Madeleine. “‘Bless Thee, Bottom, Bless Thee! Thou Art Translated!”: Ovid, Golding, and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” The Modern Language Review, vol. 93, no. 2, 1998, pp. 321–329. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3735350.
Keith, A. M. “Etymological Wordplay in Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ (Met. 4.55-166).” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1, 2001, pp. 309-312. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3556355.
Keller, Tim. “Midsummer Wall.” Tim Keller Photography, 2015, http://www.timkellerphotography.com/Images/Blog/2015/July/MidsummerWall.jpg
“metamorphose, v.” Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed., 2001.
Muir, Kenneth. “Pyramus and Thisbe: A Study in Shakespeare’s Method.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1954, pp. 141–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2866583.
Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays. Methuen, 1977.
Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso). Metamorphoses. Translated by A.S. Kline, 1st ed., Borders Classics, 2004, 4.128-66.
Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited by Linda Buckle, 5th ed., Cambridge University Press, 2016.